How Collaboration and Creative Approach Delivered a Jail for Half the Average Cost

The following blog post was originally published in the July/August issue of American Jails, the editorial magazine of the American Jail Association. The article expounds on the 2012 initiative to build a new jail for under $16 million. To help them tackle the challenge, the county engaged the team of J.E.Dunn, Hussey Gay Bell, and Rosser International, Inc. to join the jail planning team of county administrators and the Sheriff’s Office.

Is it possible to deliver 328 beds and a Sheriff’s Office for $16 million in the uncertain economic market of 2012?

The leadership of Effingham County, a small progressive county just north of Savannah, Georgia, thought so when they initiated a program to build a new jail. That’s a number just north of $48,000 per bed. When costs per bed across the country are currently ranging from $80,000 to $100,000 per bed, how is this possible? The answer: adaptive reuse. Okay, but what is adaptive reuse? Simply put, it is finding a way to reuse or repurpose existing buildings at a much lower cost than building new ones. This was the challenge faced by Effingham County.  Two possibilities for adaptive reuse immediately came to mind. One possibility was an abandoned school property that had fallen into disuse. The property containing the existing jail, a building long past its useful life, was another.

In 2011, Effingham County engaged the team of J.E.Dunn, Hussey Gay Bell, and Rosser International, Inc. to join the jail planning team of county administrators and the Sheriff’s Office to help them tackle this problem. The team evaluated both possibilities in detail.  The condition of existing buildings, required site improvements and the impact on the surrounding neighborhoods were among the issues carefully weighed against the aggressive budget.  The existing jail property came out on top.

Planning, design and costing followed. But even with the reuse of the existing jail it became apparent that this was not going to be enough space to meet the objective. At that point the planning team came up with an inventive idea. There is a county-owned prison next door to the existing jail that is not fully utilized. It is in good condition and currently in operation. Why not use a portion of that facility? Great idea — but immediately a number of challenges became apparent. One challenge was the physical connection. The existing jail and the prison are not physically adjacent and not even very close together. The two buildings would need to be connected for security. Another challenge was food service. Part of the reuse of the prison idea that made it economically attractive involved not only reusing existing beds but also reusing the existing prison kitchen to feed both the prison and the new jail populations. And yet another challenge involved inmate management. Both prison and jail inmates would need to be managed by the same staff, or at least combined staff working from the same location. These challenges begged a number of questions.  Could an efficient, economically feasible connection from jail to prison be devised? Could a renovation of the existing kitchen be accomplished inside the project budget? And how could jail inmates be effectively managed in a prison environment?

Rosser and Hussey Gay Bell came up with a solution to the connection and kitchen cost challenges. And the Sheriff’s Office came up with a solution to inmate management. To address the connection problem, a portion of the existing jail would be repurposed as the Sheriff’s Office. A new building containing intake, medical and housing would be located between the existing jail and the prison. In this way, the new building would be in a central location convenient to both the new Sheriff’s Office and the prison, shortening the circulation path between them. Since the new building had to be built in any case this location would serve as a natural “bridge” between the exiting jail and the prison, eliminating the need for an additional long and expensive connecting corridor. To address the kitchen problem, existing kitchen equipment was reused with the limited addition of new equipment so that the cost of the renovation of the prison kitchen would be less than the cost to build a new kitchen in the jail. The reuse of existing kitchen equipment also made possible the continued food service to entities outside the jail, protecting that revenue source for the county. The Sheriff’s Office collaborated with the prison staff to solve the co-responsibility of jail and prison inmate management by locating the lower risk classification jail inmates in the prison dorms and working out staffing shifts between jail and prison staff.

So at this point the project was on its way and in budget, right? Not quite. Even with these creative ideas in place the project was still over budget. Are there any construction related ideas that might save money but achieve the same result? J. E. Dunn offered an interesting one. Inmate cells are often built in the factory and shipped to the site. The cells are made of concrete which is cast in reusable molds. But usually the molds are custom built for each project. This approach has proven to save time and cost but the molds are still a large part of the manufacturing cost. J. E. Dunn already had anticipated using cells constructed in this way as part of their cost control strategy but they came up with a new wrinkle. Why not collaborate with the cell manufacturer to reuse molds that were used on another project? This would save considerable cost in production. But it also would require that the design strictly conform to the cell dimensions of the donor project. Rosser and Hussey Gay Bell found a way to make this work by designing a special grouping of the cells. Another creative and money saving construction alternative approach was offered by J. E. Dunn. The solution was a unique way of building security and structural walls called “tilt up construction.” In tilt up construction, concrete walls are formed and poured lying directly on the ground rather than being poured into formwork erected vertically. The ground is actually the formwork is this case. When the concrete hardens, the walls are tilted up into final vertical position. This method saves considerable time because it alleviates the need for formwork. J. E. Dunn estimates that this method helped to shave over two and one-half months off the construction schedule. And in the construction industry time is money. The longer the construction professional is on the site the more it costs for project overhead. So, two and one-half months of project overhead was saved and applied directly to the budget bottom line.

Almost there…but still not quite. The cost of constructing the new building and the prison renovation was covered by the budget at this point, but not the cost to repurpose the existing jail into a Sheriff’s Office. Were there any creative budget management ideas that might get us there? The Effingham County’s administration team leadership and J. E. Dunn suggested this one. From the beginning the project budget contained a contingency to cover unforeseen issues that might arise during construction.  This is normal but it is not always needed. Is it possible to move ahead with the construction of the new building and prison renovation and put the existing jail’s repurposing portion of the project in abeyance for future construction using contingency funds? That approach was adopted and it worked. The design, construction, and jail planning team worked hard during the construction period to conserve these funds, and at the end there were remaining funds sufficient to complete the project.

So what is the big take away in this story? Can everyone use the examples discussed here? Maybe not. But the take away is that jails, even small ones, can be built for seemingly impossibly small budgets when there is a willingness to look at alternative approaches with an openness to explore new ideas by a highly collaborative team.

William (Buddy) H. Golson, AIA, is a Vice President at Rosser International, Inc. and has designed and managed more than $2 billion worth of criminal justice facilities in the United States, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands and Canada. He is known for his ability to design operationally efficient and value conscious jails and prisons. Mr. Golson’s projects have been recognized for design excellence by the American Institute of Architects and he currently serves on the Facility Design Committee of the American Correctional Association. He can be reached at

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